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Q&A with Oasis Center’s New President and CEO, Mark Dunkerley

In the spring of 2009, I walked through the doors of the Youth Opportunity Center to catch up with a high school friend who worked at Oasis. It was a cup of coffee that would change my life.

From the moment I set foot in the building, I knew Oasis was a special place. I was moved by the physical space and inspired by the positive, youth-centered approach to the work. I liked the entrepreneurial spirit and the empowering way Oasis worked with youth. But what really stood out to me was the people.

Twelve years later, I still believe Oasis is a very special place, and I am honored that the Board of Directors have entrusted me with the opportunity to be our CEO during this unprecedented time.

Q: How did you initially get involved with the Oasis Center?
A: More than 10 years ago I had just started a craft beer company that was going to give 50% of its profit to a community organization, but I wasn't quite sure which nonprofit to support. A friend of mine from high school had been working at the Oasis Center so I wanted to pick his brain about what resources the organization was providing. From the minute I walked in the door, I was hooked. I had been to many nonprofit organizations in the past and had a picture of what the Oasis Center would be like - it couldn’t have been more different. The center was bursting with creative energy, similar to an advertising agency, high-ceilings, pops of color and a positive vibe that is hard to describe. The bright, inspired space was empowering our youth to find the good things in life, discover what their passions are and feel loved and accepted exactly as they are.

Over the years, I had volunteered at many places, but never anything like this. So many youth are just looking for their place in this world, and the Oasis Center inspires them to know how special and important they are along the way. The entrepreneurial spirit of the center spoke to me on a very personal level and I knew this was my place.

Q: What was your background prior to joining the Oasis Center?
A: I worked in collegiate sports marketing and fundraising at Vanderbilt and Arizona State, so a very different career than the one I have now, but so many of my key learnings from my former career are applicable to helping grow the Oasis Center and its resources.

Q: Do you have any special memories from the Oasis Center you’d like to share?
A: Wow, there are so many it’s hard to even pinpoint just a few. When I first began street outreach with the Oasis Center, I came across a young man experiencing homelessness. Like many of our youth, he was suffering from severe trauma, addiction, mental illness...and most of all from being alone. He told me that the night before he was so cold and lonely he spent the evening walking the streets and crying. The following day, that same man woke up on the steps of the Oasis Center. He said he wasn’t quite sure how he got there, but that he knew Oasis was the one place in this world where he felt loved. That hit me directly in the heart. I still tear up about it to this day. It was so symbolic of our mission here.

Additionally, about a year ago the Oasis Center received the largest federal grant for youth homelessness in the history of Nashville. After about a five-year journey of working together as a community, the youth of Nashville would finally be getting some of the resources they so desperately deserve. It was an amazing accomplishment for the organization and an honor to be included with the six other cities receiving the grant that year.

Q: How do you feel the community supports the Oasis Center?
A: We have the most incredible community. I know we are all a bit biased, but Nashville is a special place. No other city comes together quite like this one. We have had so many events to raise funds for the center, most recently our Only in Nashville annual fundraiser was put on hold due to COVID-19, but the community responded to our virtual campaign to raise $90,000 in 90 hours...with concerts from songwriters and a big boost from the whole Cyrus family, the entire Nashville community came together to help us reach the goal. It was a beautiful moment for the center and just another example of what makes Nashville so deeply unique.

Q: What’s your vision for the future of the Oasis Center?
A: My number one priority is to ensure we continue to evolve and change to meet the needs of young people as our city grows, and a huge part of that is our equity work, both internally and externally. As always, we want to keep “youth voice” at the center of every discussion. The Oasis Center has been an incredibly special and inspiring place for more than 50 years. We want to make sure we keep what has made us truly unique from the beginning while embracing the changes we know we need to make to stay relevant. The secret sauce to Oasis has always been relationships. We have to make sure that never changes.

Q: Any personal information we should know about you?
A: First and foremost, I am a father and a husband. I am Dad to two very active, very special boys, ages 4 and 6. I love the outdoors, hiking and adventuring. When there isn’t a pandemic going on, I enjoy traveling and attending live music events. I am also a self-proclaimed barbecue enthusiast and aficionado. I know this opens up a big debate, but my favorite barbecue in the country is at The Bar-B-Q Shop in Memphis, Tennessee and Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas.